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Service providers, state and local officials celebrate closure of Camp Hope

 Representatives of Spokane homeless service providers address the press at the former Camp Hope site.
Brandon Hollingsworth, SPR News
Left to right: Julie Garcia (Jewels Helping Hands), Hallie Berchinal (Compassionate Addiction Treatment), Meagan Vincello (Empire Health Services) Layne Pavey (Revive Counseling Services) and Amy Manning (Spokane Low Income Housing Consortium) celebrate the closure of Camp Hope, June 9, 2023.

An eighteen-month saga that began as a protest at Spokane’s city hall and later became Washington’s largest homeless encampment ended Friday morning, when Camp Hope officially closed.

The atmosphere at the site was joyful midday Friday, when service providers and peer counselors who helped the camp’s former residents get into more stable housing gathered to mark the occasion.

“There is something to be said about people who claw their way out of homelessness and addiction and mental health, and they come back for the others,” said Julie Garcia, head of Jewels Helping Hands, a key provider in the Camp Hope effort.

Garcia also credited the state of Washington’s Right of Way Initiative, a program launched last year aimed at closing encampments near highways and helping people get into more substantial shelter.

A Jewels Helping Hands count last summer showed about 600 people living on the site in Spokane’s East Central neighborhood. Resident numbers have steadily decreased since then, to 467 in the autumn, and fewer than 100 in late February. The camp’s last residents moved out this week.

Spokane City Council President Breann Beggs said Camp Hope’s closure indicated focusing on homelessness as a human issue is an effective way to reduce its effects on people and communities.

“What we’ve demonstrated in the last year is, the way to solve homelessness is with love and human concern,” Beggs said. “When we can agree on that, we can get things done.”

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward was set to appear at the camp site Friday, but she ended up holding a separate event four blocks away, on East Fifth Avenue, in a neighborhood she said had been “victimized” by Camp Hope. Woodward said she felt her appearance at the camp site would be disrupted.

“This has been a long time, to get to this place,” Woodward told reporters. “We have been in conversations with the state for many, many months, so that we can finally close the encampment, and move people into housing and much better options than what that field has afforded them.”

Last fall, former Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich pledged to clear the camp, a goal that was delayed and eventually quashed by a court order. Woodward’s administration took the state to court earlier this year, seeking to have the lot declared a public safety hazard. State officials countered that breaking up the camp while they were in the process of helping people find shelter would make the situation worse.

Despite opening the low-barrier Trent shelter last year and a renewed focus on affordable housing and homelessness, Garcia said the city had been more of a hindrance than a help in getting Camp Hope emptied and its residents into treatment and housing. Attitudes toward homelessness and associated factors tend to be negative, Garcia said, and investments in mental health services are inadequate.

“We look, as a community, at poverty and homelessness as a character flaw, when it’s truly just a situation that can be bettered into something else,” Garcia said.

State officials also looked to the city for further action in addressing homelessness post-closure.

“Now that Camp Hope is resolved, we hope the city administration will re-focus their attention on creating a safe, stable, broad safety net for the thousands that continue to live unsheltered within city limits,” Washington DOT spokesman Ryan Overton said in a blog post. “The reality is that Camp Hope was a symbol of a much larger problem.”

Speaking at the site Friday, Overton pointed out that even at its peak, Camp Hope contained about 600 people. The most recent annual survey, called a point in time count, showed nearly 2,400 people in Spokane County were homeless in February, a 36 percent increase over the 2022 count.

Garcia acknowledged Spokane’s homelessness is a larger issue than a single site. She said Jewels Helping Hands will soon reach out to former Camp Hope residents who have yet to find housing.

“This camp is proof that relationships matter,” Garcia said. “Building those with people experiencing homelessness is the only way to get them to get to a place where they trust and participate in their own existence.”

Some of the camp’s remaining residents were helped into housing through funding from the Right of Way initiative. Others ended up at the Catalyst Project, a renovated hotel in the West Hills neighborhood. Some went to the Trent Avenue shelter, and some were aided by the recently-opened sobering facility operated by Compassion Addiction Treatment, Garcia said. But others left Camp Hope without a housing plan.

“There were people who fell through the cracks, and we will re-engage those folks and try to make a better day for them,” Garcia said.

As for the property itself, its owner, the Washington State Department of Transportation, said it will “mitigate and repair” the site until it’s needed for construction of the North Spokane Corridor project.

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for fifteen years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.